John Curtice is Professor of politics at Strathclyde University, a co-editor of the British Social Attitudes annual report. A longer version of this article appears in the latest edition of IPPR’s journal Juncture.
Since winning a record 3% of the vote at the last UK general election in 2010, UKIP’s average standing in the polls has now climbed to at least twice that figure. In the low-turnout police commissioner elections in November this year, it won as much as 11% of the vote in the areas where it stood. Much of this increase in support appears to have come at the expense of the Conservative party.
Unsurprisingly, Conservative MPs have taken fright at the prospect that votes lost to UKIP could mean vital parliamentary seats being captured by Labour. Meanwhile, and more surprisingly, Labour has also seemed willing to fill its sails with a eurosceptic wind. But are our politicians correct in assuming that the voters themselves are in a particularly eurosceptic mood?
Euroscepticism has long been popular in Britain. Indeed in the absence of a consistently pro-European message from the country’s main political parties, as there was for example in the late 1980s, such an outlook seems to be the default position of much of the British public. However, despite the eurozone crisis, the balance of opinion on whether Britain’s membership is a good thing or not is no more adverse to the EU now than it was a decade ago. Equally, the balance of opinion on whether Britain should stay in or get out is no more in favour now of getting out than it was a decade ago. The public pressure on our politicians to take a tough line on Europe is no greater now than it has been for most of the time that Britain has been a member.
In fact, the stance of "staying in Europe but not too tightly bound by Brussels", which Ed Miliband seems to want to adopt, seems to capture effectively the public mood rather well. During the last 12 months, YouGov has invited respondents on a number of occasions to choose between five possible options for Britain’s relationship with Europe, ranging from "a fully integrated Europe with all decisions taken by a European government" to "complete withdrawal from the European Union". As the table shows, when presented with this set of options, no more than a quarter or so have said Britain should withdraw – even though, when a number of these very same polls asked people how they would vote in an EU referendum, between 36% and 48% said they would vote to leave.
The most popular option, supported by between one-third and two-fifths of respondents, is "a less integrated EU than now, with the EU amounting to little more than a free trade area". Evidently, many voters who say that currently they would vote to leave the EU could be persuaded that Britain should stay, so long as the ties with Europe were not too strong. After all, according to a YouGov poll for Chatham House, we rather like the fact that membership of the EU makes it easier to travel to, work in and even go to live on the continent – we would just prefer that not too many Europeans came here to live and work and that Brussels stopped making so many laws and regulations.
Indeed, the potential popularity of being "in Europe but not ruled by Europe" may be the most important lesson to take away from Cameron’s veto last year. According to YouGov, just a few weeks before the veto was wielded, only 31% said they would vote in favour of staying in the EU, while as many as 52% said they would vote against. Immediately after Cameron’s veto, however, support for staying in rose to 41%, balancing out exactly the 41% who were opposed. If voters feel that Britain’s interests are being promoted effectively within the framework of the EU, then they are more likely to be willing to remain members of the club. In a country where only around 12% of people feel instinctively European, that is a reality that politicians on all sides need to recognise.